When we’re not only being spied on while online but McCain, Obama, the U.S. military, and al Qaeda are all on the same side, as in the Syria conflict, do conspiracy theorists really seem so crazy?
Former politician Ron Paul is scheduled to talk to a gathering of conspiracy theorists as I type this, which, yes, is somewhat embarrassing for his fellow libertarians like me -- but then, conspiracy theories, while usually wrong, are not necessarily as destructive as, say, a desire to intervene in a Syrian civil war. Nor even as destructive as funding the Department of Agriculture, really. (And Paul always takes pains to say that he hardly ever agrees with most of the people who he talks to or with -- though I don’t think he can pretend he has no affinity for this crowd.)
Then again, it depends on which conspiracy theories we’re talking about. Unvaccinated conspiracy theorists are basically responsible for disease outbreaks like this happening with greater frequency lately, for instance. Most real-world politics, from the perspective of a rational philosopher (meaning me and perhaps only me), tends to come down to deciding which forms of insanity to tolerate at which strategic juncture, all major political factions tending toward one form of madness or another.
(I’d love to dispense with some of the “Pauleo” faction’s occasional paranoid and racist tendencies, for instance -- but not by encouraging the so-called liberal-tarians such as Reason’s Cathy Reisenwitz, who might in the end do more to deform libertarianism with their muddled, vague, feminist definition of “coercion” than the paleolibertarians do with their more easily ignored, occasional irritable mental gestures. A man thinking racist thoughts may do less damage to people’s notion of liberty than someone claiming it’s “coercive” to slut-shame -- or to stripper-praise, or whatever it is the feminists forbid next.)
Often, the best you can do is set different kinds of crazy against each other and hope they’ll cancel each other out (as church and king sometimes did in centuries past, and as right and left sometimes have). The neoconservatives and liberals, rather than feeling superior, should agree with that Machiavellian sentiment wholeheartedly, given how much herding and nudging and re-educating they tend to think the stupid masses require.
So, yes, conspiracy theorists are a disreputable, mostly-crazy lot -- and it might best serve my Machiavellian interests and best foster human wellbeing if either Ron Paul quietly retired now or his son, Sen. Rand Paul (likely humanity’s last hope of staving off a 2016 victory for Hillary Clinton-led Progressive totalitarianism), politely and mournfully chastised his dad as a heroic-but-flawed whackadoodle and, going farther, called for a more unified, sane, and intellectually mature libertarian (not to mention conservative) movement in the future.
One more step toward mainstream acceptance. If you want to turn something into an omelet, you have to throw a few lemons under the bus. And the admirably-humble elder Paul understands the movement is bigger and more important than he is.
On the other hand: Reason senior editor Jesse Walker’s wonderful book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory shows convincingly that there is nothing unusual or “fringe” about conspiracy theories, despite what elite historians like Richard Hofstadter might have taught you. You can find such theories on the fringe, of course, but you can also find them everywhere, including in the minds of presidents and Cabinet members as well as the minds of the very corporate execs and CIA heads that the fringe conspiracy theorists are in turn theorizing about.
America has had them not only from the beginning but since before the beginning, given that even before the Plymouth colonists (and the earlier, oddly hushed-up Jamestown settlers!) got here, the Spanish were already over on the West Coasttalking about imagined sinister schemes by a group whose name roughly translates as Illuminati [CLARIFICATION: in Chiapas, to be more precise, notes Walker]. Paranoia is part of life, and it’s part of politics.
Even thoroughly mainstream Bill Clinton asked underling Webb Hubbell to see if he could figure out who killed JFK and whether the government was concealing real UFOs. (There are in turn conspiracy theories about Hubbell himself being the real father of Chelsea Clinton -- and even though the JFK, UFO, and Chelsea theories are all probably baloney, Hubbell was involved in the real-life Whitewater financial conspiracy that saw numerous Clinton associates end up in jail even as the couple themselves slipped through justice’s fingers. Real political figures are arguably scarier than the space aliens.)
In a skeptical/evolutionary argument after my own heart, Walker concludes with the idea that pareidolia, the (animism-like) tendency to model all phenomena as if human or human-like agency were behind them (“That damn car hates me!”) may be the simple reason that belief in conspiracies is nigh-omnipresent. I’d add that it may also explain religion, ghost stories, blurry “Bigfoot footage,” thinking one’s nighttime fears were caused by men from space, confidence “fate” is at work all the time, and all sorts of other things. Our minds evolved to anticipate other minds, not just physical surroundings.
Just as people think the president controls the economy (or in ancient China, that the Emperor was responsible for good times), they think “someone” must be controlling all social patterns -- and if we don’t know why or how, that just counts as evidence they’re up to something sinister. (Anarchist comics writer Alan Moore, by contrast, says the truth is even more disturbing: No one is in charge and the world is “rudderless.”)
But while some conspiracy theories are just-plain crazy (the “Time Cube” theory pointed out to me by Gerard Perry may qualify), many have a grain of truth or at least tell us a great deal about the hopes and fears of the culture at the time the theories were popularized. Walker does an admirably balanced job of dissecting numerous theories’ origins and spread without technically weighing in on whether they are “correct.”
To take one of the most controversial examples, not too much discussed in the book, I think the conspiracy theories around 9/11 are wrong, but reading about them might incidentally teach you some unsettling true things about, say, the ties between the CIA, Pakistani intelligence, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Saudis that you probably wouldn’t have known if fully satisfied with the saner, simpler, standard “U.S. good, bad guys bad” model of such things -- a model that certainly looks shaky when messy things like Benghazi and Syria happen.
(And most of us have long since forgotten, for instance, that the FBI helped direct the bomb plot that led to the 1993 Trade Center bombing -- even though the audio of the FBI telling the terrorists to use more powerful explosives was, I swear, played by CBS News -- since, hey, they were presumably just trying to infiltrate and take down the terrorists, and, well, only six people died that time. Life goes on. Maybe the next plot won’t get out of hand. What could go wrong?)
Yet the government itself is in turn guilty of conspiracy-theorizing when it imagines each lone-wolf terrorist or half-assed domestic militia to be a giant world-straddling threat worthy of police-state retaliation tactics. Paranoia tends to escalate in a feedback loop.
One of the weirdest overlaps between paranoia and reality Walker notes is the set of prankster conspiracy-mockers centered on the Church of the SubGenius and its sister (joke) religion, Discordianism, co-founded by a man with the bizarre distinction of having written a novel inspired by Lee Harvey Oswald (who he’d known from Oswald’s military days) before the JFK assassination, causing the author to be grilled by the Warren Commission, who may have come to suspect that the Discordians, of all people, were conspirators involved in the assassination.
But in some ways, though stories like that have a Dadaist/1960s/postmodern ring to them (and Walker traces echoes of such paranoia not just in things like The Matrix and X-Files but, as he notes in a footnote, even in shows like Seinfeld), America had even weirder beliefs -- with even greater impact -- in the old days. One of the founders of Brown, for instance, thought that the Native Americans were taking their orders to organize against the white man from Satan himself, who would appear to them in the form of a bear walking on its hind legs (which makes me wonder if that co-founder had any say in picking Brown’s mascot...).
Walker creates a taxonomy of different imagined threats/helpers likely to cause conspiracy beliefs, including (to use early-American bogeymen as examples) the Enemy Below (the slaves could revolt at any time!), the Enemy Outside (the French are behind this and want to take over the Colonies!), the Enemy Above (the bankers are all high-level Freemasons!), the Enemy Within (spies!!), and the Benign Conspiracy (angels visiting Earth with advice!).
(On that last one: I’ve wondered several times what started the culture’s obsession over the past couple decades with angels -- that is, the naively-heretical pop-culture version of them as routine visitors who crop up at bus stops or road-side accidents, looking an awful lot like ordinary humans who the narcissistic storytellers just haven’t met before, to offer mundane advice or a helping hand and then disappear. And it turns out the angels theme got a big boost from an early-80s book on the topic by an anarchist I’ve met here in NYC who is likely known to many of my acquaintances: Peter Lamborn Wilson, a.k.a. Hakim Bey, among other things author of T.A.Z: Temporary Autonomous Zone and host of the radio show The Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade on the late, lamented WBAI.)
Often, some conspiracy theory that began with a grain of truth would grow into an elaborate mythology, which would in turn beget some simplified pop-culture notion, as with tiny occult clubs spawning fear of elaborate Satanist conspiracies, which led to the brief 70s/80s paranoia that homicidal Satanists might be lying in wait for aimless teenagers (in turn inspiring a few crazies to behave like real Satanic maniacs).
One of the most influential Christian conspiracy theorists of the 70s/80s period, John Todd, helped spur the still-common fear of the Illuminati running everything. He got donations by asking for help in fighting off an elaborate conspiracy that included just about every institution of society that you can think of, including Christian ones -- yet his ex-wife and church colleagues reported, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Todd was himself willing to dabble in demonology and occult rituals if it helped make him seem more important to his followers or helped him get laid.
Even the ravings about the Illuminati had the tiniest grain of truth in them, in that there had been an eighteenth-century occult club by that name. Less tethered to reality were other parts of Todd’s theory, such as that Atlas Shrugged was written to explain the secret Illuminati plot by which Rand’s Communist (yes, Communist) allies would take over the world (Walker notes that a baffled Rand had no idea what the Illuminati were when asked about them on Donahue by an audience member). John Todd ended his days as a proud Wiccan suffering from gender-identity anxieties, charged with sexual assault and fraud. To this day, there are commenters on YouTube who say he was framed by the powers that be.
Much as we might be tempted to laugh at him, though, we’d do best to read Walker’s account of how conspiracy theories have shaped everything from wars to economics to the worldview of Winston Churchill before we assume we are immune to such silliness. It may be a part of the human condition from which there is no escape.